As 2019 fades into the sunset, this much is certain for the University of Wisconsin–Madison’s women’s hockey program: it’s been a year of milestones, and the momentum is carrying over onto the ice in this new season. The Badgers have hosted a women’s hockey team for two decades on campus. The players capped off their 2018-19 anniversary season with their fifth NCAA championship under the guidance of head coach Mark Johnson.
The season-ending victory against fellow Midwest archrivals Minnesota in March was the first time in eight years the Badgers received a national championship trophy, though they’ve come close to the coveted top prize on multiple occasions in the intervening seasons between 2011 and 2019.
“Obviously, winning a national championship is a big deal in and of itself,” says AJ Harrison, the program’s assistant director of athletic communications. “They had gotten so close the past few years. This championship obviously meant a lot because of all the tribulations the team went through.”
The closeness to the championship AJ references includes a number of celebratory occasions. The team won the Western Collegiate Hockey Association (WCHA) regular-season and tournament title in the 2016-17 season before eventually closing it out with a 33-3-4 record season. The team also claimed their seventh WCHA regular-season crown in the 2017-18 season.
Several factors have been attributed to the women hockey players’ strong performances on the ice throughout the 2018-19 season. In postseason play, several players helped the team collectively reach the long-sought-after victory. Kristen Campbell became the first goaltender to post three NCAA shutouts in the NCAA tournament, and Annie Pankowski also received high honors, scoring 11 goals in seven of the Badgers’ postseason games.
The triumphant 2018-19 season is the latest in a string of high points for the program, which currently has a 26-player roster. In 2006, early in the team’s existence, the athletes made a name for themselves by becoming the first team outside Minnesota within the region to win the Women’s Frozen Four championship.
In the years since, the Frozen Four has been a familiar accomplishment for the team. This past season marked the sixth straight appearance in the competition, resulting in the longest streak in women’s hockey history. Subsequent championships in advance of this year’s victory occurred in 2007, 2009, and 2011.
The Badgers have been connected to the Frozen Four in other areas as well, particularly with the Patty Kazmaier Memorial Award, which is presented annually during the championship event. The recognition, designed to pay homage to top-performing women athletes in ice hockey, is named in honor of the late Patty Kazmaier-Sandt, who died of a rare blood disease at age 28. She excelled in ice hockey while attending Princeton University from 1981 to 1986.
Over the years, five Badgers women have received the award in Patty’s honor by virtue of being named top NCAA Division I women’s hockey players. Sara Bauer was the first UW player to earn the recognition, 2006; followed by Jessie Vetter, 2009; Meghan Duggan, 2011; Brianna Decker, 2012; and Ann-Renée Desbiens, 2017.
At the culmination of the 2018-19 season, Mark’s career record as the team’s head coach stood at 494-87-43, according to information supplied by Badgers officials. He has notched the highest number of wins—not only in Badgers history, but in the full breadth of the record books of NCAA collegiate women’s hockey.
Mark has coached the team for all but four of its seasons, and has overseen the team in each of its five national championships. He began coaching the team in the 2002-03 season, and with the exception of a one-year sabbatical in the 2009-10 season to coach the U.S. Olympic Women’s Hockey team, he has offered steady guidance for more than a decade and a half.
Mark’s long-tenured leadership of the team is the latest in a series of Madison-related connections. He grew up in Madison and earned his bachelor’s degree in kinesiology from the University of Wisconsin–Madison. His coaching resume includes stints elsewhere in the area, including roles as an assistant coach with the Madison Memorial High School boy’s team from 1993 to 1994, and the Badgers men’s team from 1996 to 2002.
Other leaders of the Badgers women’s hockey staff include Dan Koch, assistant head coach; Jackie Crum, assistant coach; Mark Greenhalgh, volunteer coach; Sis Paulsen, director of operations and equipment manager; Stefanie Arndt, athletic trainer; and Jim Snider, strength coach.
While Mark, other front-office staff, and the players themselves are at the heart of the team’s success, AJ says the fan support is another important part of the equation that should not be overlooked. Since day one, October 8, 1999, when 3,892 were in attendance, fans have flocked to the local arena and traveled to away games to cheer on the team. “Last year, we actually sold out of season tickets,” AJ says, illustrating the strength of the support in more recent years.
In fact, spectator support has garnered attention outside Madison. The NCAA has recognized the team’s fans multiple times over the years, including in 2012, when the Badgers shattered the organization’s attendance record for a third consecutive year as 12,402 fans were notched in one particular match-up that monumental season.
While the abundant practices and training are obvious important components of the team’s success, AJ says the fan support truly is the figurative icing on the cake of victory. “It really makes a huge difference,” he says. “The players definitely feel that support out on the ice, and it means a lot to them.”
Dave Fidlin is a freelance writer who has a special affinity for Madison. Dave’s career spans nearly 20 years, and he’s grateful for the opportunity to learn something new each day through his professional pursuits.